Hundreds of years ago, French and Dutch sailors both vied to make the island of St. Maarten—or Sint Martin, depending on where on the island you’re standing—their outpost, and eventually decided to compromise. Today, its two sides perfectly represent two dichotomous personalities. The elegant yet untamed French capital, Marigot, contrasts with the cobblestoned, commercial downtown Phillipsburg.
Here are some of the best things to do in St. Maarten, from lounging on some of the Caribbean’s best beaches to embarking on thrilling adventures through the rainforest.
Discover St. Maarten’s Two Sides
As Europeans began to discover the New World in the 17th century, both Dutch and French settlers staked their claim to St. Maarten. After banding together to ward off Spanish colonizers in 1648, the two countries decided to divvy up the island and coexist peacefully together. They established the island’s two capitals and drew up the map we recognize today.
The north of the island is called Saint Martin, which is the French side. Sint Maarten, the Dutch side, faces south and includes the Dutch capital of Philipsburg. Each half of the island has its own distinct atmosphere. In Marigot, dine at delicious creole eateries or sit outside at a beachfront cafe, listening to locals speak French. Enjoy a faster pace and a more urban vibe on the Dutch side, particularly down Front Street in Philipsburg.
Make Your Own Fragrance
Perhaps inspired by the perfumeries dotting the Cote d’Azur, fragrance is more than a hobby for locals in the French Caribbean. On the French side of the island, you can discover the rich art of perfumery from masterful teachers at a local factory.
Each person has their own individual perception of the notes commonly used in fragrance. Balmy or fresh? Floral or musk? Citrusy or sweet? Some may love notes of orange blossom, lavender, or warm vanilla, while others may find those too overwhelming.
Learn the science of how perfumes are extracted from raw materials, then create your own unique eau de parfum. Choose from hundreds of delicate essential oils and powerful base notes to concoct a cologne or perfume that suits your unique personality. You can even bring home a bottle of your creation, so when you spritz on your custom fragrance, you’ll be instantly transported to the islands no matter where you are.
Sink Your Toes In The Sand
There’s no shortage of excellent beaches on either side of the island—in fact, there are exactly 37 to choose from—but you may have trouble deciding which beaches are best for you.
If you want to stay close to the action, visit Maho Beach and watch planes soar overhead before landing at Princess Juliana International Airport. This experience is one of the best things to do in St. Maarten—you’ll feel almost close enough to reach out and touch their wings. Your best bet for seeing the planes overhead is in the early afternoon, typically between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Of course, not every beach experience in St. Maarten is an adrenaline rush. Experience a taste of the French Riviera at Grand Case Beach on the French side of the island, which is often recognized as one of the best beaches in the Caribbean. Claim a chaise and an umbrella and practice the art of doing nothing.
One of the best beaches in St. Maarten is Mullet Bay, a long stretch of white sand and secluded coves. There’s even a golf course nearby if you want to hit the links. Mullet Bay was hit hard by Hurricane Irma in 2017, but with dedicated clean-up efforts, it has returned to postcard-level perfection.
Great Bay Beach is located conveniently close to the town’s bustling cruise port and is popular with families, so set down your towel early in the day to stake a claim on this short mile of soft, sugar-white sand. After a swim or snorkeling session, saunter down its beachy boardwalk lined with bars and restaurants for a cold drink and a bite to eat.
Savor St. Maarten’s Culinary Scene
One of the little known fun facts about St. Maarten is that its foodie scene is rapidly growing. The island has even earned the nickname “the culinary capital of the West Indies.” Like other Caribbean getaways, you can’t leave St. Maarten without tasting its spicy conch and dumplings, callaloo, Johnny cakes, or codfish fritters.
There’s something for everyone in St. Maarten, including fusions of Dutch, French, and Caribbean classics. Trendy eateries in Simpson Bay and Marigot coexist next to local joints, and St. Maarten has perfected the art of the roadside snack, especially for barbecue, roti, and fried fish.
Shop for fresh veggies or visit an authentic rum stand, where you can sip sweet cane juice. After a trip to the local fish market, learn to prepare island-inspired dishes with the help of a private chef.
Stroll through Old Street Philipsburg
Phillipsburg is home to a charming, must-see historic district that even includes a convenient trolley train to take you around. A few of the area’s most popular photo-ops include an antique car painted in sunshine yellow and the “gingerbread house” of Walter Plantz Square.
Admire brightly-painted, uniquely Dutch architecture set against a distinctly Caribbean backdrop of tropical rainforest and towering mountainscapes. Explore the Old Courthouse, then head to Front Street for the island’s best shopping. Stop at the duty-free shops for fine jewelry, watches, handmade goods, island souvenirs, and more.
Zipline Through the Rainforest
Eco-tourism in St. Maarten not only gives you a glimpse into the most beautiful tropical paradises on the island, but it also contributes to conservation efforts that protect the local rainforest.
Not only is St. Maarten’s Loterie Farm a nature preserve home to thousands of local plant species, but it also boasts an exhilarating zipline and adventure course to get your adrenaline pumping. The course is one of the top things to do in St. Maarten for adventure seekers. Pronounced like “lottery,” you’ll hit the jackpot here whether you hike the rainforest trails or nap in their cabanitas.
Visit St. Bart’s Gorgeous Beaches
St. Barts was established by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and even named for his brother, Bartolomeo. Remote and hard to reach, the island is often visited by celebrities. Thanks to a high-speed ferry that leaves from St. Maarten, you can join them.
St. Barts is home to a wide array of Michelin-starred chefs and French-fusion menus, making it a foodie paradise. Dine at upscale restaurants and go boutique shopping in town. Visit a few of the island’s 22 sugar-sand beaches, or bar hop along the beachfront.
Zoom Around the Island in a Jeep
What better way to experience both sides of St. Maarten than on an off-road Jeep adventure? With only 37 miles of island to explore, take the scenic route as you drive through Marigot, take in the coastline, and enjoy breathtaking views from the island’s lookout points.
Discover the Open Waters
Sailing is a local pastime and a cultural and community tradition that residents are very proud of. The island is home to international regatta events like the annual 12 Metre Regatta and the Heineken Regatta.
Novices, enthusiasts, and experienced sailors alike can board an award-winning racing yacht. Sail past your competition and learn the ropes with your crew. Experience the thrill of sailing in a professional regatta—a true bucket-list item.
If you prefer to take it slow, you can hop aboard a custom-built catamaran for a sophisticated sunset expedition along the coast of St. Maarten. Sip champagne and unwind to the sound of gentle waves from the ocean, passing Philipsburg and tiny fishing towns along the way.
Travel Back in Time at Fort Amsterdam
Built back in 1631, Fort Amsterdam was the first Dutch settlement in the Caribbean. The French, Spanish, and Dutch all fought to occupy and maintain the fort as their own until the 19th century due to its strategic location.
Aside from its history, panoramic views of the bays and beaches of St. Maarten are all part of Fort Amsterdam’s appeal. Bring a camera for an unforgettable photo op among the 17th-century ruins.
See the Vibrant Sea Life
Diving and snorkeling are two of the top things to do in St. Maarten. There are nearly 20 distinct dive sites to choose from, and the shallower ones are ideal for beginners. Artifacts from sunken shipwrecks, soft corals, and marine life like eels, rays, sea turtles, nurse sharks, and more are regularly spotted.
You can even experience the underwater world on a semi-submarine. Descend into the big blue sea and admire St. Maarten’s bright corals and colorful marine life through the submarine’s glass windows. Learn fun facts and tidbits about St. Maarten’s reefs, including those near the famous Creole Rock on the French side of the island.
Whether you decide to dive the reefs near Creole Rock, set off on a catamaran into an orange sunset, or simply sit on one of the island’s perfect beaches, see the best of the island on a cruise to St. Maarten. Embark on thrilling shore excursions and make once-in-a-lifetime memories in Philipsburg and beyond.
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